The urgent quest for a radical political centre: Noel Pearson

The urgent quest for a radical political centre: Noel Pearson

I HAVE become convinced that the distance between good and bad policies is most often very fine — not poles apart. People from either side of the cultural and political divide usually believe the distance between their own correct policies and their opponents’ wrong policies is substantial.

This polarisation leads to a failure of the left to appreciate the correctness of policies promoted by the right (and vice versa) because the fine difference between the correct and the incorrect policy is too subtle for usual public discourse, which sees only stark tensions that suggest bald contradictions rather than close, more intense tensions that suggest paradox and potential synthesis.

The “radical centre” in politics may be defined as the intense resolution of the tensions between opposing principles, a resolution that produces the synthesis of optimum policy. The radical centre is not to be found in simply splitting the difference between the stark and weak tensions from either side of popularly conceived discourse, but rather where the dialectical tension is most intense and the policy positions much closer than most people imagine.

We are prisoners of our metaphors: by thinking of realism/pragmatism and idealism as opposite ends of a two-dimensional plane, we see leaders inclining to one side or the other. Those who harbour ideals but who need to work within the parameters of real power (as opposed to simply cloaking lazy capitulation under the easy mantle of righteous impotence) end up splitting the difference somewhere between ideals and reality. This is called compromise. And it is all too often of a low denominator.

I prefer a pyramid metaphor of leadership, with one side being realism and the other idealism, and the quality of leadership dependent on how closely the two sides are brought together. The apex of leadership is the point where the two sides meet. The highest ideals in the affairs of humans on earth are realised when leadership strives to secure them through close attention to reality.

The best leadership occurs at the point of highest tension between ideals and reality. This is the radical centre. If the idealism is weaker than the realism, then optimum leadership cannot be achieved. And vice versa. The radical centre is achieved when both are strong. Otherwise, you get the problem of skewing.

The discourse on rights and responsibilities is so ubiquitous as to be almost sterile, but the fact that two tribes still face each other on either side of the ideological divide between rights and responsibilities demonstrates that, while the radical centre may make common sense analytically, it is uncommon to see it emerge in practice.

The predominant view in Australian indigenous policy, from a progressive and indigenous perspective, remains that rights are the real imperative and responsibilities are an ideological diversion. By the end of the last millennium, it was necessary to face up to the gaping responsibility deficit in indigenous policy.

When I decided that we could no longer go on without saying that our people held responsibilities as well as rights, it was not a repudiation of rights. It was just that all the talk, all the advocacy, all the analysis, all the leadership, and all the policy and politics was about rights. There was no talk about responsibility.

Our responsibility agenda in Cape York Peninsula of the past seven years has led us to tackle the largest immediate problems facing our people: substance abuse and the reform of welfare. We have cut through with our advocacy and our policy analysis. We have contributed to a wider discussion on welfare reform and social disadvantage a discussion not unique to indigenous affairs, and certainly not unique to Australia.

The responsibility agenda is now ascendant. However, the effective weight of indigenous leadership is, at best, silent on it. There is still, I suspect, a yearning for the ascension of the old paradigm.

The problem is that, with the rise of the responsibility agenda, there has been a corresponding collapse of the rights discourse. While there has been a lot of talk about “the rights agenda” in Australia over the past decade, there has been no effective leadership with impactful advocacy, policy and strategy. For discourse to penetrate the social and political currents of society, we have to get beyond preaching to the converted and complaining in our in-house forums about the failure of wider forums to take up our hammers. Influence is not conferred on all discourse as if it is an equal opportunity exercise.

We therefore have the problem of skewing in indigenous policy in Australia. There is no effective rights leadership and advocacy. This is not to say there is no competent intellectual analysis of the rights agenda, but there needs to be more than compelling analysis.

I and my associates in Cape York Peninsula decided to champion the indigenous responsibility agenda because this was the most underdeveloped area in the then Australian discourse. The side effect of our decision is that we are perceived to represent only the principle of responsibility; in a political and societal sense, we are largely limited to this role, despite our continued work and practical achievements in securing rights for our people.

A successful synthesis will not occur unless the rights agenda is equally developed and cutting through. A successful Australian synthesis must reconcile indigenous rights with indigenous responsibility, and the interests of non-indigenous Australians. But the indigenous rights agenda is so weak that non-indigenous Australians seem unaware of the nature of our people’s aspirations.

This might seem a strange contention almost two decades after the Mabo decision on native title, but it is becoming clear that our opponents do not understand our point.

Earlier this year we hosted a senior federal minister so that we could explain our reform plans and seek support for them. The minister was supportive, amiable and intellectually astute. He observed the relevance of our work for his portfolio, and I have no doubt he will support our plans. Indeed, I have no doubt he desires our people to rise up in the world. However, as he left he commended our work but said: “I just don’t understand the indigenous rights stuff.”

The minister was not expressing conscious enmity or opposition to my people’s aspirations. His remark was a symptom of the fact that the indigenous rights agenda is politically irrelevant.

Tension between rights and responsibilities is impossible, and therefore no synthesis can be achieved. Warren Mundine and I (and many others) are carrying the indigenous responsibility leadership. There is no sign of effective carriage of the indigenous rights leadership. And there is no sign of a primary societal leadership that is interested in finding the radical centre where rights and responsibilities are synthesised.

This is an edited extract of a speech to be delivered at The Age Melbourne Writers’ Festival tomorrow night.

READ: The Age


Scroll to Top